It is hard to believe three decades have passed. This March will be the thirtieth anniversary of cold fusion. In case you think that debacle—that icon of pathological science—is all in the past, think again. Two articles in this issue provide scientific perspective and report on a new related device. In “Cold Fusion: Thirty Years Later” chemistry professor David W. Ball (Cleveland State University) reviews what happened with cold fusion, what resulted, and how the entire series of events is viewed today. Was cold fusion a case of what is wrong or of what is right in science? Both, Ball concludes, but he says the balance is toward the latter: “Scientists ended up doing what scientists do: they tried to understand and replicate the work, and when not able to do so, said so and even criticized the original results. In the end science worked.”
When the cold fusion claims broke, I was working at Sandia National Laboratories. As a major U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory, Sandia was one of the leading labs DOE tasked with trying to figure out what was going on. I remember the excitement well. Some of Sandia’s many PhD nuclear physicists, engineers, and research chemists immediately began devising ways to test cold fusion. Over the ensuing months they conducted a number of clever experiments. None I know of replicated the claims; many falsified them. Sandia prefers to avoid the limelight, so few of those experiments became widely known. Other labs elsewhere did their own studies, and some of those scientists did publicize their generally negative results. Gradually, cold fusion fell by the wayside.
To the degree cold fusion exists anymore, it is known now by a euphemism: low-energy nuclear reactions, or LENR (pseudosciences often change names). A few devotees still pursue it. One self-proclaimed inventor, Andrea Rossi, aggressively promotes his Energy Catalysis, or E-Cat, device. Like cold fusion’s original proponents, he claims it generates nuclear energies on a tabletop. He demonstrates the machine to investors worldwide but is secretive about how all the black boxes composing it work. We have seen this before with perpetual motion machines. So we asked physics professor and SI author Sadri Hassani (Illinois State University) to investigate. His article, “Why E-Cat Is a Hoax,” follows Ball’s article.
Our two-article package is a lesson first for cold fusion in how science itself handles extraordinary claims when they seem important enough to justify the expenditure of major resources. (Scientists tend to ignore lesser popular claims, leaving groups like ours to respond.) Also see Hassani’s comparison of the impacts that real scientific discoveries have had within thirty years of their publication. For E-Cat, it is a lesson in human credulity and conspiratorial thinking. Australian skeptic and entrepreneur (and CSI fellow) Dick Smith has offered Rossi a one-million-dollar challenge to demonstrate his E-Cat device before unbiased observers; Rossi declined. E-Cat has no scientific traction.
I write this just after our big CSICon 2018 conference on science and skepticism in Las Vegas. It was the largest CSICon yet and very exciting. Participants seemed exhilarated. We’ll have a series of reports in our next issue.